The Heterogenous Citizen

How Many of Us Care about Don Bradman’s Average?

How to Cite

Arvanitakis, J. (2008). The Heterogenous Citizen: How Many of Us Care about Don Bradman’s Average?. M/C Journal, 10(6).
Vol. 10 No. 6 (2008): 'vote/citizen'
Published 2008-04-01


One of the first challenges faced by new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was what to do with the former government’s controversial citizenship test. While a quick evaluation of the test shows that 93 percent of those who have sat it ‘passed’ (Hoare), most media controversy has focussed less on the validity of such a test than whether questions relating to Australian cricketing legend, Don Bradman, are appropriate (Hawley).

While the citizenship test seems nothing more that a crude and populist measure imposed by the former Howard government in its ongoing nationalistic agenda, which included paying schools to raise the Australian flag (“PM Unfurls Flag”), its imposition seems a timely reminder of the challenge of understanding citizenship today. For as the demographic structures around us continue to change, so must our understandings of ‘citizenship’. More importantly, this fluid understanding of citizenship is not limited to academics, and policy-makers, but new technologies, the processes of globalisation including a globalised media, changing demographic patterns including migration, as well as environmental challenges that place pressure on limited resources is altering the citizens understanding of their own role as well as those around them.

This paper aims to sketch out a proposed new research agenda that seeks to investigate this fluid and heterogenous nature of citizenship. The focus of the research has so far been Sydney and is enveloped by a broader aim of promoting an increased level of citizen engagement both within formal and informal political structures. I begin by sketching the complex nature of Sydney before presenting some initial research findings.

Sydney – A Complex City

The so-called ‘emerald city’ of Sydney has been described in many ways: from a ‘global’ city (Fagan, Dowling and Longdale 1) to an ‘angry’ city (Price 16). Sarah Price’s investigative article included research from the University of Western Sydney’s Centre of Culture Research, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and interviews with Tony Grabs, the director of trauma at St Vincent’s Hospital in inner city Darlinghurst. Price found that both injuries from alcohol and drug-related violence had risen dramatically over the last few years and seemed to be driven by increasing frustrations of a city that is perceived to be lacking appropriate infrastructure and rising levels of personal and household debt.

Sydney’s famous harbour and postcard landmarks are surrounded by places of controversy and poverty, with residents of very backgrounds living in close proximity: often harmoniously and sometimes less so. According to recent research by Griffith University’s Urban Research Program, the city is becoming increasingly polarised, with the wealthiest enjoying high levels of access to amenities while other sections of the population experiencing increasing deprivation (Frew 7).

Sydney, is often segmented into different regions: the growth corridors of the western suburbs which include the ‘Aspirational class’; the affluent eastern suburb; the southern beachside suburbs surrounding Cronulla affectionately known by local residents as ‘the Shire’, and so on. This, however, hides that fact that these areas are themselves complex and heterogenous in character (Frew 7). As a result, the many clichés associated with such segments lead to an over simplification of regional characteristics.

The ‘growth corridors’ of Western Sydney, for example, have, in recent times, become a focal point of political and social commentary. From the rise of the ‘Aspirational’ voter (Anderson), seen to be a key ‘powerbroker’ in federal and state politics, to growing levels of disenfranchised young people, this region is multifaceted and should not be simplified. These areas often see large-scale, private housing estates; what Brendan Gleeson describes as ‘privatopias’, situated next to rising levels of homelessness (“What’s Driving”): a powerful and concerning image that should not escape our attention. (Chamberlain and Mackenzie pay due attention to the issue in Homeless Careers.)

It is also home to a growing immigrant population who often arrive as business migrants and as well as a rising refugee population traumatised by war and displacement (Collins 1).

These growth corridors then, seem to simultaneously capture both the ambitions and the fears of Sydney. That is, they are seen as both areas of potential economic boom as well as social stress and potential conflict (Gleeson 89).

One way to comprehend the complexity associated with such diversity and change is to reflect on the proximity of the twin suburbs of Macquarie Links and Macquarie Fields situated in Sydney’s south-western suburbs. Separated by the clichéd ‘railway tracks’, one is home to the growing Aspirational class while the other continues to be plagued by the stigma of being, what David Burchell describes as, a ‘dysfunctional dumping ground’ whose plight became national headlines during the riots in 2005. The riots were sparked after a police chase involving a stolen car led to a crash and the death of a 17 year-old and 19 year-old passengers. Residents blamed police for the deaths and the subsequent riots lasted for four nights – involving 150 teenagers clashing with New South Wales Police. The dysfunction, Burchell notes is seen in crime statistics that include 114 stolen cars, 227 burglaries, 457 cases of property damage and 279 assaults – all in 2005 alone.

Interestingly, both these populations are surrounded by exclusionary boundaries: one because of the financial demands to enter the ‘Links’ estate, and the other because of the self-imposed exclusion.

Such disparities not only provide challenges for policy makers generally, but also have important implications on the attitudes that citizens’ experience towards their relationship with each other as well as the civic institutions that are meant to represent them. This is particular the case if civic institutions are seen to either neglect or favour certain groups. This, in part, has given rise to what I describe here as a ‘citizenship surplus’ as well as a ‘citizenship deficit’.

Research Agenda: Investigating Citizenship Surpluses and Deficits

This changing city has meant that there has also been a change in the way that different groups interact with, and perceive, civic bodies. As noted, my initial research shows that this has led to the emergence of both citizenship surpluses and deficits.

Though the concept of a ‘citizen deficits and surpluses’ have not emerged within the broader literature, there is a wide range of literature that discusses how some sections of the population lack of access to democratic processes. There are three broad areas of research that have emerged relevant here: citizenship and young people (see Arvanitakis; Dee); citizenship and globalisation (see Della Porta; Pusey); and citizenship and immigration (see Baldassar et al.; Gow).

While a discussion of each of these research areas is beyond the scope of this paper, a regular theme is the emergence of a ‘democratic deficit’ (Chari et al. 422). Dee, for example, looks at how there exist unequal relationships between local and central governments, young people, communities and property developers in relation to space. Dee argues that this shapes social policy in a range of settings and contexts including their relationship with broader civic institutions and understandings of citizenship. Dee finds that claims for land use that involve young people rarely succeed and there is limited, if any, recourse to civic institutions. As such, we see a democratic deficit emerge because the various civic institutions involved fail in meeting their obligations to citizens.

In addition, a great deal of work has emerged that investigates attempts to re-engage citizens through mechanisms to promote citizenship education and a more active citizenship which has also been accompanied by government programs with the same goals (See for example the Western Australian government’s ‘Citizenscape’ program ). For example Hahn (231) undertakes a comparative study of civic education in six countries (including Australia) and the policies and practices with respect to citizenship education and how to promote citizen activism. The results are positive, though the research was undertaken before the tumultuous events of the terrorist attacks in New York, the emergence of the ‘war on terror’ and the rise of ‘Muslim-phobia’.

A gap rises, however, within the Australian literature when we consider both the fluid and heterogenous nature of citizenship. That is, how do we understand the relationship between these diverse groups living within such proximity to each other overlayed by changing migration patterns, ongoing globalised processes and changing political environments as well as their relations to civic institutions? Further, how does this influence the way individuals perceive their rights, expectations and responsibilities to the state?

Given this, I believe that there is a need to understand citizenship as a fluid and heterogenous phenomenon that can be in surplus, deficit, progressive and reactionary. When discussing citizenship I am interested in how people perceive both their rights and responsibilities to civic institutions as well as to the residents around them. A second, obviously related, area of interest is ‘civic engagement’: that is, “the activities of people in the various organisations and associations that make up what scholars call ‘civil society’” (Portney and Leary 4). Before describing these categories in more detail, I would like to briefly outline the methodological processes employed thus far.

Much of the research to this point is based on a combination of established literature, my informal discussions with citizen groups and my observations as ‘an activist.’ That is, over the last few years I have worked with a broad cross section of community-based organisations as well as specific individuals that have attempted to confront perceived injustices. I have undertaken this work as both an activist – with organisations such as Aid/Watch and Oxfam Australia – as well as an academic invited to share my research.

This work has involved designing and implementing policy and advocacy strategies including media and public education programs. All interactions begin with a detailed discussion of the aims, resources, abilities and knowledge of the groups involved, followed by workshopping campaigning strategies. This has led to the publication of an ‘activist handbook’ titled ‘From Sitting on the Couch to Changing the World’, which is used to both draft the campaign aims as well as design a systematic strategy. (The booklet, which is currently being re-drafted, is published by Oxfam Australia and registered under a creative commons licence. For those interested, copies are available by emailing j.arvanitakis (at) Much research is also sourced from direct feedback given by participants in reviewing the workshops and strategies

The aim of tis paper then, is to sketch out the initial findings as well as an agenda for more formalised research. The initial findings have identified the heterogenous nature of citizenship that I have separated into four ‘citizenship spaces.’ The term space is used because these are not stable groupings as many quickly move between the areas identified as both the structures and personal situations change.

1. Marginalisation and Citizenship Deficit

The first category is a citizenship deficit brought on by a sense of marginalisation. This is determined by a belief that it is pointless to interact with civic institutions, as the result is always the same: people’s opinions and needs will be ignored. Or in the case of residents from areas such as Macquarie Fields, the relationship with civic institutions, including police, is antagonistic and best avoided (White par. 21). This means that there is no connection between the population and the civic institutions around them – there is no loyalty or belief that efforts to be involved in political and civic processes will be rewarded.

Here groups sense that they do not have access to political avenues to be heard, represented or demand change. This is leading to an experience of disconnection from political processes. The result is both a sense of disengagement and disempowerment.

One example here emerged in discussions with protesters around the proposed development of the former Australian Defence Industry (ADI) site in St Marys, an outer-western suburb of Sydney. The development, which was largely approved, was for a large-scale housing estate proposed on sensitive bushlands in a locality that resident’s note is under-serviced in terms of public space. (For details of these discussions, see

Residents often took the attitude that whatever the desire of the local community, the development would go ahead regardless. Those who worked at information booths during the resident protests informed me that the attitude was one best summarised by: “Why bother, we always get stuffed around any way.” This was confirmed by my own discussions with local residents – even those who joined the resident action group.

2. Privatisation and Citizenship Deficit

This citizenship deficit not only applies to the marginalised, however, for there are also much wealthier populations who also appear to experience a deficit that results from a lack of access to civic institutions. This tends to leads to a privatisation of decision-making and withdrawal from the public arena as well as democratic processes. Consequently, the residents in the pockets of wealth may not be acting as citizens but more like consumers – asserting themselves in terms of Castells’s ‘collective consumption’ (par. 25).

This citizenship deficit is brought on by ongoing privatisation. That is, there is a belief that civic institutions (including government bodies) are unable or at least unwilling to service the local community. As a result there is a tendency to turn to private suppliers and believe that individualisation is the best way to manage the community. The result is that citizens feel no connection to the civic institutions around them, not because there is no desire, but there are no services.

This group of citizens has often been described as the ‘Aspirationals’ and are most often found in the growth corridors of Sydney. There is no reason to believe that this group is this way because of choice – but rather a failure by government authorities to service their needs. This is confirmed by research undertaken as early as 1990 which found that the residents now labelled Aspirational, were demanding access to public infrastructure services including public schools, but have been neglected by different levels of government. (This was clearly stated by NSW Labor MP for Liverpool, Paul Lynch, who argued for such services as a way to ensure a functioning community particularly for Western Sydney; NSWPD 2001.) As a result there is a reliance on private schools, neighbourhoods, transport and so on.

Any ‘why bother’ attitude is thus driven by a lack of evidence that civic institutions can or are not willing to meet their needs. There is a strong sense of local community – but this localisation limited to others in the same geographical location and similar lifestyle.

3. Citizenship Surplus – Empowered Not Engaged

The third space of citizenship is based on a ‘surplus’ even if there is limited or no political engagement. This group has quite a lot in common with the ‘Aspirationals’ but may come from areas that are higher serviced by civic institutions: the choice not to engage is therefore voluntary. There is a strong push for self-sufficiency – believing that their social capital, wealth and status mean that they do not require the services of civic institutions. While not antagonistic towards such institutions, there is often a belief is that the services provided by the private sector are ultimately superior to public ones. Consequently, they feel empowered through their social background but are not engaged with civic institutions or the political process. Despite this, my initial research findings show that this group has a strong connection to decision-makers – both politicians and bureaucrats.

This lack of engagement changes if there is a perceived injustice to their quality of life or their values system – and hence should not be dismissed as NIMBYs (not in my backyard). They believe they have the resources to mobilise and demand change.

I believe that we see this group materialise in mobilisations around proposed developments that threaten the perceived quality of life of the local environment. One example brought to my attention was the rapid response of local residents to the proposed White City development near Sydney’s eastern suburbs that was to see tennis courts and public space replaced by residential and commercial buildings (Nicholls). As one resident informed me, she had never seen any political engagement by local residents previously – an engagement that was accompanied by a belief that the development would be stopped as well as a mobilisation of some impressive resources.

Such mobilisations also occur when there is a perceived injustice. Examples of this group can be found in what Hugh Mackay (13) describes as ‘doctor’s wives’ (a term that I am not wholly comfortable with). Here we see the emergence of ‘Chilout’: Children out of Detention. This was an organisation whose membership was described to me as ‘north shore professionals’, drew heavily on those who believed the forced incarceration of young refugee children was an affront to their values system.

4. Insurgent Citizenship – Empowered and Engaged

The final space is the insurgent citizen: that is, the citizen who is both engaged and empowered. This is a term borrowed from South Africa and the USA (Holston 1) – and it should be seen as having two, almost diametrically opposed, sides: progressive and reactionary.

This group may not have access to a great deal of financial resources, but has high social capital and both a willingness and ability to engage in political processes. Consequently, there is a sense of empowerment and engagement with civic institutions.

There is also a strong push for self-sufficiency – but this is encased in a belief that civic institutions have a responsibility to provide services to the public, and that some services are naturally better provided by the public sector. Despite this, there is often an antagonistic relationship with such institutions.

From the progressive perspective, we see ‘activists’ promoting social justice issues (including students, academics, unionists and so on). Organisations such as A Just Australia are strongly supported by various student organisations, unions and other social justice and activist groups. From a reactionary perspective, we see the emergence of groups that take an anti-immigration stance (such as ‘anti-immigration’ groups including Australia First that draw both activists and have an established political party). (Information regarding ‘anti-refugee activists’ can be found at while the official website for the Australia First political part is at

One way to understand the relationship between these groups is through the engagement/empowered typology below. While a detailed discussion of the limitations of typologies is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to acknowledge that any typology is a simplification and generalisation of the arguments presented. Likewise, it is unlikely that any typology has the ability to cover all cases and situations. This typology can, however, be used to underscore the relational nature of citizenship.

The purpose here is to highlight that there are relationships between the different citizenship spaces and individuals can move between groups and each cluster has significant internal variation. Key here is that this can frame future studies.

Conclusion and Next Steps

There is little doubt there is a relationship between attitudes to citizenship and the health of a democracy. In Australia, democracy is robust in some ways, but many feel disempowered, disengaged and some feel both – often believing they are remote from the workings of civic institutions. It would appear that for many, interest in the process of (formal) government is at an all-time low as reflected in declining membership of political parties (Jaensch et al. 58).

Democracy is not a ‘once for ever’ achievement – it needs to be protected and promoted. To do this, we must ensure that there are avenues for representation for all. This point also highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the aforementioned citizenship test. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the test is designed to:

help migrants integrate and maximise the opportunities available to them in Australia, and enable their full participation in the Australian community as citizens. (par. 4)

Those designing the test have assumed that citizenship is both stable and, once achieved, automatically ensures representation. This paper directly challenges these assumptions and offers an alternative research agenda with the ultimate aim of promoting high levels of engagement and empowerment.

Author Biography

James Arvanitakis